Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Glamour: The Murph versus The Village

 This year, for the first time since I was a child, I’ve succumbed to the Christmas spirit. Usually I’m a reluctant participant in the jolly goings on, and while I don’t actually say “Bah Humbug”, I think it. That was all in the past. In recent weeks I’ve discovered that threading my way through throngs of shoppers under the glow of Christmas lights no longer exasperates me. I even hum along to a few lines of the carols played to enhance our consumer experience in this, the festive season. So when I’m queuing in the Continental Market and glance up at the domed silhouette of Belfast City Council – minus its Union flag - I find myself wondering whether the festive tunes dulled the war cries of the loyalist mob that attempted, and partially succeeded in forcing its way into the chambers two weeks ago. Furious loyalists were either intending to lynch whomsoever they came upon first or scale the dome and restore their beloved flag to its place.* They failed on both counts. 
         Since that evening they’ve been venting their frustration on just about anyone. Politicians have received death threats, political party premises have been gutted by firebombs, and protesters have halted the flow of traffic, infuriating both Christmas shoppers and employees trying to get home from work. Roadblocks and rioting, to the accompaniment of XXL flag waving histrionics, have become a daily occurrence throughout Belfast - and beyond - in the past fortnight. Many traders are bitter at the resulting loss of business. One Frenchman on the Continental market was heard saying, “I only came here to sell a few sausages and have a good time; I’ve not been able to do either. Merde.
         As this is the first year in decades that I’ve felt any enthusiasm for Christmas, I’m determined to nourish this feeling, to keep it safe from the “kill joys”. Inspiration urges me to indulge my enthusiasm by running my own unique yuletide competition on this blog. I’ll be the judge and I’ll have the power to select candidates and choose a winner. The prize will go to the most glamorously decorated house in a contest between two Belfast neighbourhoods, one Protestant/Loyalist and the other Catholic/ Nationalist: The Village versus Ballymurphy, aka “The Murph”.
         Both areas have a daunting reputation in the sense that good citizens from the south Belfast monied classes would never risk venturing into either of them unless accompanied by an armoured vehicle. But I’m not from south Belfast so I’m thrilled by the prospect of patrolling the streets of The Murph and The Village in pursuit of a winner. Since I’m in search of glamour, I’ll be particularly looking for colourful symbols of Christmas, brightness, and an overall effect that causes an impact. No comments will be made on kitsch. The Murph will be first as it is only a ten-minute walk from my home in west Belfast.
The area is set at the foot of the Black Mountain; it is hemmed in by the City Cemetery to the west, and to the north/ east by a 5 metre high fortified peace wall dividing the Catholics on this side from Protestants on the other. The Murph has the dismal distinction of being No. 1 on the government’s scale of multiple deprivation, a ranking it has held for many years. Unemployment rarely drops below 45 per cent in this neighbourhood; long-term illness or disability is a reality for 29 per cent of people of working age; and 62 per cent of residents have no formal qualifications.
Walking up the Whiterock Road, a steep hill that leads northwards and up into Ballymurphy, I glance at a hoarding that reads “Coca Cola: Open Happiness”. A few yards further on a couple of doleful looking horses are tethered to a caravan on a site belonging to travellers. I pass the technical college where Seamus Heaney once taught; all the windows have metal grilles fixed to them. A number of the houses have colourful graffiti art – depicting young people engaged in Gaelic sports - on their gable ends. At the summit of the Whiterock Road there is a handful of shops, mostly takeaways, a tanning salon, a newsagents and a pub. A chill wind blows down from the mountain dispersing half a dozen seagulls squabbling over the remains of a discarded curried chip meal.
Christmas is only a week away, so most homes now have their decorations in place. In early evening, when the lights have been switched on, every street brightens with colourful displays. This is the first time that I’ve regarded Christmas decorations with anything other than a fleeting look and I’m astonished at the lengths people have gone to. A number of the houses not only have the interior bedecked, but the exterior too. Some have two Christmas trees, inside and outside in their modest front gardens. Gigantic snowmen, Santa Claus, reindeers and sleighs have been festooned with flashing lights to produce an overall effect which is quite spectacular. One householder has created a mini Santa’s grotto, sprinkled with fake snow, in the front garden. I take a few notes and photos of “candidates” but deciding on a winner is going to be a challenge. There is no way to distinguish between the best, and there are about twenty of the best. 
On the following evening it is the turn of The Village, a twenty minute walk southward from my home in Catholic West Belfast. To get there I cross the motorway which serves as a boundary/peace line between the two neighbourhoods. As I’m crossing “no man’s land” – the roundabout – I notice a convoy of armoured vehicles positioned at the entrance to the (Protestant end of the) Donegal Road; this is the start of the area known as The Village. For the past two weeks loyalist protesters have been gathering here to halt traffic and make their views known about the removal of their flag from Belfast City Council. Rioting has broken out and the police have come under attack with bottles, bricks, paint bombs and fireworks. Fortunately, the protesters have not yet arrived so I hasten past the armoured vehicles and begin my search.
A few steps further on I am greeted by loyalist paramilitary wall murals glorifying the sacrifices of Ulster soldiers killed in the First World War. At the far end of The Village, in Sandy Row, there was, until recently, a mural depicting masked and armed men, warning passersby that they were about to enter paramilitary territory. These murals were referred to as the “chill factor” in a report by the local community group. The same report reveals that local residents have a poor opinion of their neighbourhood. Two thirds were either very dissatisfied or dissatisfied with its overall appearance, while the remainder did not comment. Nobody had anything positive to say. 
On the scale of multiple deprivation The Village is ranked 22nd. Lone parents head 66 per cent of households here; 14 per cent of young people leave school with no qualifications whatsoever and literacy and numeracy problems are rife; long term unemployment is a fact of life; while teenage pregnancies, drugs and poor nutrition are among other issues singled out in the report.
It’s getting dark now and I’m walking east along the Donegal Road, the main route through the Village. At a swift pace, it takes half an hour to reach “neutral territory” - Shaftesbury Square - near the university. The Village is much smaller than Ballymurphy and it is also older; homes are mainly two-up-two-down terraced houses dating back to the end of the 19th Century. I pass a number of churches; there are nine in the area, all Christian/Protestant denomination, a few takeaways, a tanning salon and a couple of off licences. Last summer, the saplings which Belfast City Council planted along the route bore fruit: plump bright red cherries. Now, minus foliage and fruit, the trees are swallowed up by a grim landscape of grey on grey.
I’m beginning to realise that it’s a risky venture being a Catholic and taking snapshots of homes in a loyalist area at night. Fortunately, there are very few people around. But nothing, so far, has impressed me; only a paltry display lights up some of the houses and in many there’s no hint of Christmas. No lights, no trees, no Santa nor snowmen. I wasn’t prepared for this. 
Then I spot a candidate. Multi-coloured lights flash in the darkness and a giant Santa Claus waves at me. I reach for my camera … and then I see the householder taking a leisurely smoke at his front door. I consider adopting an American accent and asking if I can take a photo of his “awesome” house but my nerve fails me. Ten minutes later, just as I had given up on The Village, I catch sight of cream, blue, and red lights winking in the darkness, and just beyond, safety and Shaftesbury Square. Approaching the house, I raise my camera and … and through the viewfinder I see beaming out from the living room window “ULSTER IS BRITISH”. Yuletide greetings it definitely is not. I’m looking at a monument to the loyalist cause. There’s no contest here. The Village loses. The Murph wins. Happy Christmas everybody.

* Prior to 23 November 2012, Belfast City Council hoisted the Union Jack 365 days a year. Following a vote among councillors it has been removed from the flag pole above dome on all but a few specific occasions.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Graveyard Chronicles - Stinsford & Thomas Hardy

In the winter of 1979 I was given a present that transformed my teenage reading habits and initiated me into the world of great literature. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was a Christmas gift from a friend at the Manchester city centre tax office where I worked. From the very first chapter I was drawn into Tess’ life, entranced by it, by her. Within the year I had read the novel three times, mostly before 8.00 am on the Number 167 bus, where I was one of many passengers making the daily commute into work. The bus journey, and indeed my own life, faded into the background as something to be endured while awaiting the next opportunity to immerse myself in the novel.
         Tess of the D’Urbervilles was my first encounter with Hardy’s Wessex* and even though I progressed on to others of his masterpieces, it has always remained my favourite. Jude the Obscure came next and whether it was coincidence, synchronicity or entirely meaningless, the fact was that Jude’s struggle - against the rigid class system of his time - to enter university - mirrored my own endeavours. Every evening and all weekend, whatever free time I had, was devoted to studying for my A levels. University, a degree, offered me an opportunity escape the daily tedium of office work and the chance to spend a few years just reading books, aka becoming a full-time student. Jude tragically failed because circumstances, or to use Hardy’s own words, fate, was against him. I was more fortunate. 
      And so it was that when I passed my A levels I set off on a “pilgrimage” to Wessex, to the home of the man I owed my enlightenment to, Thomas Hardy. Hardy, of course, died in 1928 at the age of 88. His birthplace in the Dorset village of Upper Bockhampton, had been acquired by the National Trust and was open to the public. It is a pretty, neatly thatched cottage surrounded by equally pretty gardens. The visit, however, gave me little insight into whatever vicissitudes the Hardy family had faced almost 200 years ago. Plodding through the house in the company of half a dozen other visitors and led by a guide whose deadpan voice reeled off all the relevant facts, it was difficult for me to get a sense of the man. I couldn’t feel a connection when I sought Hardy’s presence in this, his family home. Just for the record I took a few photos and departed, heading down Bockhampton Lane toward Stinsford Churchyard, where Hardy is buried together with other members of his family.
Three decades later I returned to Stinsford. On an unusually warm Saturday morning last August, I took the Southampton to Dorchester train in the company of my friend Jane, who had first introduced me to Hardy with her Christmas gift so many years ago. We were both excited about visiting Max Gate, the house that Hardy designed (he was a skilled architect) and had built for himself and his wife Emma on the outskirts of Dorchester. While I was enthusiastic about visiting Max Gate, the main reason for my journey was to satisfy my curiosity. Something uncanny had happened in 1981 when I visited Hardy’s grave and I had been yearning to return to Stinsford in the hope that a second visit would shed some light on that experience.
Jane and I walked from the train station along Arlington Avenue out to Max Gate. The house stands in its own 1.5 acre grounds, close to the busy A35.  We passed through the gates and followed the short driveway up to the house; as we stepped on to the porch I noted the sound of birdsong, but only as a feeble competitor with the roar of traffic. It was an uneasy blend that accompanied us throughout our tour of Max Gate, a soundscape that Thomas Hardy would not have been acquainted with. 
Max Gate was disappointing. Neither Jane nor I felt Hardy’s presence in the rooms we passed through, not even in his study where he had produced his best work, including Tess and Jude. Visiting his home should have been a rewarding experience; but I was unmoved. I began to wonder whether my enthusiasm for the great writer had faded over the years. However, as we were preparing to leave, Jane glanced at one of the leaflets an American lady had given us in the downstairs reception area upon our arrival. It was then we understood that very little of the furniture from Hardy’s time remained in his home. Dorset County Museum, for example, had acquired the original furniture from the study, which it has used to recreate the room as it was in the writer’s day – but behind a glass wall - as we discovered later on that afternoon.  To me, Max Gate felt as if it had been divested of something essential; part of its personality was missing.  
The walk from Max Gate to Stinsford Churchyard took longer than we expected. Not having a map, we decided to follow our instincts and found ourselves tramping through fields of nettles, aka delightful meadows.  Exasperated, Jane retrieved her “sat nav” from her bag. I groaned; it seemed sacrilegious to use 21st century technology in a quest to find the grave of this quintessentially 19th century writer. As it was, the device could not or did not recognise our location, so on we went.  Eventually we discovered a signpost directing us to Stinsford; we followed the pathway in hushed appreciation of the beauty of our gentle unspoilt surroundings.
The scent of newly-mown grass in Stinsford Churchyard blended with the heat just as it had done on that day in 1980 when I had first visited. I walked up the slope toward St. Michael’s. Many of the graves I passed dated back to Thomas Hardy’s time and earlier. Sadly, the church was closed. It was here – around 150 years ago - that Mr Shirley, the vicar, infuriated the young Thomas Hardy one Sunday by criticising the endeavours of the lower class to improve their lot in life by joining the professions. This was very possibly the place where the author experienced what became a life-long aversion to the Church and the class snobbery typical of its clergymen.
Thomas Hardy was drawn to this churchyard again and again from his earliest years. His parents, grandparents, sister and his first wife, Emma, were buried here before him. It was not unusual for him to stroll to Stinsford from Max Gate with visitors and point to the spot where he wished to be buried. When others left, he often lingered here alone. One hundred years ago, in November 1912, he placed a wreathe on the grave of Emma “From her lonely husband with the Old Affection.” On Christmas Eve 1919 he told Florence, his second wife, that when he was arranging some holly on his father’s grave, he’d witnessed a ghost. They exchanged a few words but it vanished when he followed it into the church. 
Looking down at the grave of Thomas Hardy, that uncanny sense of something-being-not-quite right filled me once again. It was the same feeling I had experienced earlier in Max Gate and also many years ago in the cottage at Upper Bockhampton, Hardy’s birthplace. The inscription reads, “Here lies the Heart of Thomas Hardy OM”. His heart was a concession to the writer’s family and to his last wishes, as expressed in the will, to be buried alongside his kin. The remainder of the corpse was claimed as belonging to the nation and taken off to be cremated and buried at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Thirty years ago. I was standing in this churchyard when a powerful and unexpected sense of déjà vu overcame me. It seemed to rise up from the earth and hold me to the spot. I didn’t know how to explain it then and still don’t now; but that sensation seemed to justify the nostalgia that fills me whenever I visit Wessex. I scanned the churchyard, hoping to recognise the spot…
I’d come here seeking to relive that unique moment in my life, hoping to make another connection with something mysterious. Leaving Stinsford Churchyard, I understood that I hadn’t failed. Nostalgia, yearning, melancholy, the pathos that forms the essence of Hardy’s genius is here for anyone who opens to it.
I leave the final word on pathos to the master himself:
Winterborne’s fingers were endowed with a gentle conjuror’s touch in spreading the roots of each little tree, resulting in a sort of caress, under which the delicate fibres all laid themselves out in their proper directions for growth …
“How they sigh directly we put ‘em upright, though while they are lying down they don’t sigh at all,” said Marty.
“Do they?” said Giles. “I’ve never noticed it.”
She erected one of the young pines into its hole and held up her finger; the soft musical breathing instantly set in, which was not to cease night or day until it should be felled – probably after the two planters should be felled themselves.
         “It seems to me,” the girl continued, “as if they sigh because they are very sorry to begin life in earnest – just as we be.”
  The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy